The building of St. Barts is itself a powerful statement of the presence of the Church in the community. It has an active and busy congregation of a wide variety of ages and ethnicities, and a church school which is an important part of parish life. Worship and teaching are of a liberal catholic style.
The Church lies on Westwood Hill - a reminder of the great West Wood that covered the area. Much of the oak was used to build Navy ships in the 16th century leaving Westwood Common a popular place for Londoners to come and enjoy the spa waters. The first chapel in the area was built by the Presbyterians in 1760. Anglicans had to walk or ride to Lewisham or Beckenham - an arduous journey. However unrest following the end of the Napoleonic Wars caused the government to sponsor church building in the hope that religion might quiet the revolutionary spirit of thte age.
In1824 the 500 inhabitants of Sydenham resided in the Parish of St. Mary Lewisham. Since the cutting of the Croydon Canal in 1801 the population had gradually increased and now an effort was made to have a church built in Sydenham by a grant from the Million Pounds Waterloo Fund.
Nothing could be done for three years while the choice of site was negotiated. At last in 1827 work began but, owing to the nature of the soil the architect, Mr Vulliamy had to take the foundations down to twenty feet below the surface, so increasing the cost by £4,000.
Because of further delays through parochial disagreements, the Church was not completed until 1832. The total cost was £10,311.15s.4d. which was paid from the Waterloo Fund. The Church was consecrated by Dr. Murray, the Bishop of Rochester, on 30 August 1832, which was in the Octave of the Feast of St. Bartholomew.
The inside of the finished Church looked very different from its present appearance. It had a plain ceiling, with tiny clerestory windows and the pillars were of brick and plaster. There were old fashioned high pews with doors. (A pew opener was employed to open them). There was a small gallery over the western entrance containing the organ. There was no chancel and no choir, and the singing was led by the children of the National Schools who were seated in the gallery. the Parish Clerk's desk, the Clergydesk and the Pulpit rose one above the other in a form knows as "three-decker". The Church was lighted by candles.
The first Curate-in-Charge was the Rev Thomas Bowdler MA; "a man of unostentatious piety, with a most highly refined and elegant mind." He became a Prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral and when he died was buried with his wife and three of his daughters, who had predeceased him, beneath the east window of the South Aisle.
The Rev. Charles English MA, the second Curate-in-Charge, enlarged the Church by building the Chancel and the Vicar's Vestry. It was dedicated to the memory of his predecessor and was consecrated by Dr. Tait, the Bishop of London, on 9 August 1858. In the same year the Crystal Palace Gas Company installed gas to light the Church.
In 1839, the Croydon Canal had been drained and replaced by the railway line. The opening of stations at Forest Hill, Sydenham and Penge had led to extensive house building. This had been increased by the building of the Crystal Palace.
To provide for the rapidly growing population, Mr English had led a movement which resulted in the building of Christ church, Forest Hill in 1854 and St. Philip's, Taylor's Lane, in 1866. Mr English was "very fond of children" and built a Church school in Kirkdale in 1863. For ten years Mr English was worried by the Church Rates controversy and "had it not been for his great discretion and un-ruffled temper, we should have come to a state of lawlessness". He died at the Parsonage in 1867 and was buried beneath the unusual red sandstone grave near the east gate.
He was succeeded by the Rev.Augustus Legge, who later became Bishop of Lichfield. In his time, the nave roof became unsafe and was replaced by the present open timber roof. At the same time the larger clerestory windows were put in; the three-decker pulpit was replaced by the present one and new pews were installed. The choir stalls and Clergy desks were added with their carved figures of St. Bartholomew and the four Evangalists. The gallery was dismantled and the organ was re-built at the East end by William Hill. New nave columns and arcades were built with carved heads placed on the capitals.
The restoration and improvement was completed in 1874 at a total cost of £7,883 and the Church looked similar to its present appearance.
The impressionist landscape painter Camille Pissarro spend the winter of 1870 to 1871 in London, taking refuge from the Franco-Prussian war, staying in Norwood and producing paintings clearly influenced by Corot and Millet. St. Barts church is the focal point of his "The Avenue, Sydenham" which is now in the National Gallery. For more information on Pissarro. Click on the picture or on the link to the right for the page about the artist on the National Gallery site.
Canon Legge was succeeded in 1879 by the Rev Huyshe Yeatman, later to become Bishop of Southwark and later still Bishop of Worcester. He enlarged St. Bartholomews by adding the short North Aisle, the Choir Vestry, the South Porch and closed off the South door of the Chancel.
The next Vicar, Canon Walter Moberley, was installed in 1892, and during his incumbency a thousand pounds was raised for the decoration of the Chancel. Erected in stages between 1901 and 1910, the new Reredos was greeted with mixed feelings. The centre panel shows the Epiphany scene depicting the Wise Men offering their gifts. In addition there are children bringing their gifts and an Angel leading a scribe carrying scrolls of Holy Scripture. There is a poor man bringing sacrificial pigeons and a shepherd with some sheep. Above the picture is a vine branch bearing grapes, to show that Jesus called himself "the true vine" and us "the branches".
After Canon Moberley's death in 1905, the Rev. William Perone Holmes became Vicar and stayed during the period including the First World War, when the Crypt was first used as an air-raid shelter. In 1917 Mr Holmes exchanged livings with the Rev. William Boyne Bunting. While he was Vicar in 1919 the South Aisle was furnished as a Memorial Chapel to the men who died in the War. In 1924 the oak panelling was added.
During the Second World War the Church suffered war damage. The old stained glass was shattered and, once again, the Crypt was used as a shelter. In 1944, the Parsonage was demolished by a V1 flying bomb. The Rev. Joseph Hunter was rescued from the rubble. He died in 1947.
A year later, the Rev. Arthur Perry was installed and took in hand the restoration of the Church. Some of the remaining old glass was composed into a small window high up in the east end of the North Aisle. The other windows were replaced by modern designs in time for the Easter of 1953. These were the work of Mr. Francis Spear.
The Rev. Arthur Perry left St. Bartholomews in 1957 to become Vicar of St. Barnabas, Dulwich and Chaplain to Dulwich College. In 1958 the Rev. Maurice Garton became Vicar of St. Bartholomews until his retirement in 1970. After a long interregnum of over a year the Rev. Frederick Pinder MA was installed. Mr. Pinder died in 1979 andn the Rev. Bernard Mobbs arrived in April 1980. Mr Mobbs left to become Vicar of St. John's Dormansland, in January 1987. The Rev. David Jackson BDS who came to the ministry from dentistry served from 1987 to 1993. The present Vicar is Michael Kingstson.
Meanwhile, there have been some changes to the church building. The north aisle and transept were turned into a parish hall in1985. There is an extensive crypt which was adapted by Eric Howard during the 1980s for club purposes. A nave altar designed by Karen Butti to fit with the style of the east window was dedicated in 2001 and a dais erected for it to stand on.
The church was originally lit by candles and later gaslights. Electric lighting was installed in 1913 and maintained on a piecemeal basis thereafter. This system was replaced in the early years of this century following a major fund raising appeal. This was followed by a much-needed replacement to the antiquated boiler and heating system.
The church is open to visitors most Saturdays 9.30am - 12.30pm and most Sundays 11.30am - 12.30pm (outside service times).
Underneath the large yew tree at the entrance to the church lies the grave of 10 men who lost their lives during the rebuilding of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in 1953. Scaffolding collapsed and the men fell from a great height to their deaths. The tragedy touched many people's hearts and the funeral in St. Bartholomew's church was a huge affair. The grave was restored in 2003, to mark the 150th anniversary and re-dedicated by the Bishop of Woolwich. An information board has been since provided adjacent to the grave.
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